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Saturday, March 13

From the Diaries of Peter M. Sexton ● Santiago de Cuba, 1920

Saturday, March 13

An unsettling day.

I lingered long upon my couch this morning, having stayed up late to write down my experiences of the previous day, until finally Ayana knocked and entered with a tray of coffee and buttered rolls. I welcomed the simplicity of the meal, as my stomach was still unsettled from the rum. I had not heard the usual calisthenic thumpings from upstairs, and I asked the maid if our housemates were absent or ill; she let me know that they were to spend the morning sightseeing in the city before visiting the young man in the hospital in the afternoon.

I had no engagements scheduled for the morning, and so I decided that I might do some roaming as well; perhaps I would by chance encounter the two ladies and strike up a conversation. I would only have to be careful to not too quickly reveal how much I already knew about Miss Pulver’s affairs, lest she find that off-putting, and understandably so.

I did however discover in an alley shop of religious paraphernalia a small but remarkable painting of Saint Raphael the Archangel, patron saint of healing. The picture depicted a tall beatific being with long drooping wings; its hands were outstretched and were casting some sort of fanged, hairy beast into a jagged hole in the desert floor. The two creatures were of titanic size in relation to the bug-like humans who prostrated themselves before the scene or fled in terror. The shop owner, a tiny, almost dwarflike man, saw me handling the icon and told me that the painting had powerful healing properties; it had hung in the bedroom of an old woman who had been crippled by a winter breeze, and in time she was able to rise from her sickbed and return to work. It had also been instrumental in returning many choleric infants to health, and those that did expire while under its influence passed uncommonly peaceably. As the price was not so very much for such a powerful relic, I decided to purchase it; I thought that I could bring it to the hospital and hang it in the room of young Mr. Seagrave that very morning. Miss Pulver would be sure to see it, and it might serve as a conversational starting point at some later time. And of course if the proprietor were to be believed, it might well heal the young man entirely; at the very least it would surely do him no extra harm.

It took me a fair span of time to find the hospital again, as it seemed not to be in precisely the place that I remembered it, but, once inside, the same female functionary I had seen two days prior recognized me and gave me permission to proceed by way of a curt smile and a jerk of her head. I made my way through the maze of wards until finally I found room 619; the door was slightly ajar, so I pushed it open and entered.

To my surprise, Mordecai Seagrave was out of bed. He sat on a chair facing the window and was looking out over the streets and buildings that rolled down to the bay, and then the hills beyond. His posture was lax, his face turned away; as before, he looked like a doll that had been unceremoniously dumped by a child and lay where it had fallen. This time, however, I could sense something different about him, some silent alertness.

“Mr. Seagrave?”

There was no answer. I took a step into the room, but my foot hit something which clattered across the floor, banged against the iron bedpost and caromed off into the corner. The man did not flinch or turn his head, but sat as silent as a statue.

I walked over and picked up the object that I had accidentally kicked; to my surprise it was a light, inexpensive crucifix. I remembered now that these hung over all the beds in the hospital, and this one must have fallen to the floor. I cleaned the scuff marks off the statuette with my handkerchief the best I could. When I looked up, I jumped; though he had not moved his head, Seagrave’s eyes had swiveled around and now regarded me.

“Mr. Seagrave,” I said, “can you hear me?”

“Yes.” The word was flat and hoarse, breathed out quickly and then silenced.

“Do you know where you are?”

“Yes.”

“You were on a submarine, under the ocean…do you remember?” It was a too-frank question, perhaps, but my curiosity had gotten the better of me.

His eyes moved slowly back to the window, and then they returned to me, but he said nothing.

“Was there an underwater cavern? Did you find something there?”

He continued looking at me for some time, then glanced down at my hands and spoke. “Do you worship that God?”

I was taken aback by the question and the flat, detached way in which it was asked. “Yes. Yes I do.” I walked over to the wall and returned the cross to its nail. “Do you not?”

Seagrave looked out the window. “I could tell that you worshiped it.” There was a pause. “It seems a poor choice.”

This surprised me. I could not see his face, and so did not quite know how to take the remark. I returned to his side, though I was careful to keep myself out of arm’s reach. “I don’t understand. There is only one God.”

There was another long pause, and then he spoke again. “He is a quiet god. Quieter than a mouse. It seems we have not heard from Him in quite some time.” The voice was neither contentious or mocking, but only flat, somber and distant.

It occurred to me that the young man must have been terribly shaken by his ordeal, his mind perhaps in a precarious state, and so I tried to adopt a positive and reassuring tone. “I believe you are mistaken. He is all-powerful. He created us all. Even if he is silent, he is everywhere.” I smiled in what I hoped was a sympathetic way.

Seagrave’s face remained as inscrutable as a basilisk’s, and he looked at me with eyes like wells. Out the window, beneath him, the city whirred and ticked, turning slowly around the sleeping bay, but here in the room there was a hollow strangeness, like a haunting. I wanted to feel compassion for the young man, but I instead felt dread. His arms and legs still hung limply, one foot cocked on its side, one hand turned upward in his lap, and his back slouched against the chair, and yet his breathing was slow and deliberate, like a jaguar in the bush. His face did not turn away.

I remembered then the heaviness under my arm: the painting I had bought on his behalf. Now I felt awkward about it, but it seemed too ridiculous not to give it to him after having come for only that purpose. “I brought you this….” I held it out to him.

Finally, some flicker of emotion crossed the young man’s face: his brow furrowed as he looked at it, his eyes roving everywhere quickly, taking in every corner. Attention changed to perplexity, and then, abruptly, fear. “What is this thing?” he asked hotly, hoarsely, his eyes wide. An arm came up as if to ward off a blow. His stare was locked onto the beast that was dropping into the blackness. “Get that away! Get it away!”

With a sweep of his arm he knocked the painting out of my hands and onto the floor. He was tense in his chair now, breathing hard, staring off blindly into space. He seemed to be gripped by terror, and his hand clasped at his throat as though he feared it being cut. I was alarmed, truly, and was about to rush out of the room to call for a doctor, but already the attack seemed to be subsiding; gradually his muscles relaxed, his respiration slowed, and he settled back into his seat. His face became flooded with a torpor even deeper than what I had seen before; his half-closed eyes stared into nothing and his lips parted. Once again he was like a cataleptic, like a marionette with the strings cut.

“Mr. Seagrave?”

His eyes blinked excruciatingly slowly. Close. Open. I was shaken. I picked the picture up off the floor and left.

* * *

When I returned to the boarding house later that evening I heard an animated discussion taking place in the parlor, and so I investigated. Doña Calvo y López was holding court, and arranged on the sofas and chairs around her were Miss Pulver, Miss Karas and a fair young gentleman I had never seen before.

“Ah, Mister Sexton”—pronounced says-ton, as usual—”I am very pleased to see you. You have met Miss Pulver and Miss Karas I believe. This is another countryman of yours, an acquaintance of Miss Pulver’s, ah, cómo se dice? Betrothed?”

The acquaintance stood up briskly. He was tall with sandy hair and a broad, handsome face. He wore a white linen suit which I judged to be of recent purchase, and in his hand he held a soft sailor’s cap. “Percival Lamb.” He shook my hand with excessive vigor. My arm rattled painfully in its socket.

“Why Mister Sayston,” said Miss Pulver, looking at me catwise, “I didn’t realize you were an American. You were terribly quiet during our dinner together.” She was wearing a gray skirt and a pearl-colored silk blouse with oversized buttoned cuffs. Her teacup upraised, I could just glimpse the skin of her arm within, glowing softly. Her face appeared even more pretty than I had remembered, now that it was turned towards me. I could tell with a glance that Lamb had also noticed the young woman’s charms. His eyes were as wide as saucers, and his hands clenched his cap nervously, crushing it all out of shape.

“Sexton,” I corrected with a smile and polite bow to our host, “I do apologize for my silence yesterday. As I recall, you and your traveling companion were having a tête-à-tête and I didn’t want to intrude. On top of that my mother would have been quite indignant if word had ever gotten back to Baltimore that I had been talking with my mouth full.”

“So you preferred to remain quiet and eavesdrop,” jabbed Miss Karas. “What is that you have under your arm?”

I showed them the painting of Saint Raphael Archangel. “I was in a shop and it caught my eye. Also, I was told that it may have certain magical properties.” I chuckled and shrugged.

“Mister Says-ton, I am disappointed in you,” said Doña Calvo y López tartly. “These shopkeepers will tell you anything to sell you their garbage. This picture is in bad taste, I think. I hope you are not planning to hang that in your room.” She waggled a finger at me.

“The painter had a vivid imagination, I must say,” said Miss Karas.

“I am afraid to say that that picture is rather a bit grisly, Mister Sexton,” confirmed Miss Pulver. “What is it that the angel is doing?”

“I believe it is casting the demon Azazel into a pit.”

“Ay, Mister Says-ton! No talk of demons, please! Not in my house! Ayana!” She ordered the sleepy-looking maid to take the painting away and fetch another teacup.

“Ah, well, I don’t want to intrude….”

“Nonsense, sir, sit with your countrymen, I insist it, we are having an interesting time and you should join us.”

I sat across from the two young women, with our hostess on my left and Mr. Lamb by the doorway on my right. “What brings you to Cuba, Mister Sexton?” asked Miss Pulver.

“I’m an agent for an association of sugar importers.”

“I told you he was sweet,” winked the hostess at Miss Karas, who scowled.

“That sounds very interesting.”

“Quite. And…you ladies? What is it that brings you to the beautiful island of Cuba?”

“We are here visiting a friend that is ill,” said Miss Karas.

I am not a person who can easily countenance the idea of lying, but at that moment I found it necessary to dissemble somewhat. “I know of one American in the hospital here in Santiago, a young academic named Seagrave who was taken ill during some sort of underwater expedition that was reported in the newspapers.”

Miss Pulver blanched. “Yes, that is my fiancé,” she said.

“Ah, I am terribly sorry to hear that. Some sort of shock to the system, I suppose?”

“Just so.”

Our hostess interjected. “I am having a mass said for the novio at La Iglesia de la Cruz Sagrada tomorrow, Mister Says-ton. I hope you will attend.” She swiveled to Miss Pulver. “Tell me, Miss Pulver, were there long romancings between you and Mister Seagrave? How did you meet your heart? I am interested in these stories of love.” The Doña fancied herself to be fluent in English, and specified as much when advertising her boarding house, but the actual results of her attempts were varied. “I hope you do not mind this women’s talk, Mister Lamb,” she added.

Miss Pulver sighed. “We have all known each other since we were children. Well, of course Irene and I knew each other, we are cousins, second cousins.”

“We share a pair of great-grandparents,” elaborated Miss Karas.

“Our families live not so terribly far away from each other, in Connecticut, which is up in the northeast part of America. Mordecai and Irene are from the same town, and when I would visit her we all played together in the woods and fields. He was such a beautiful little boy, and so sweet. He had a little museum in his room of arrowheads and birds’ nests and snails’ shells, he was so proud of them. He would only show them to me, no one else. Then his mother would set out a picnic dinner and we would all eat together and play games, and it was terrible fun, do you remember, Irene? Everyone was so much simpler and kinder in those days. If you had said that in ten years everyone in the world would be lying in trenches and killing each other no one would have believed you, and now of course his elder brother Jeremy is dead, killed in France, and back then he was still climbing trees and dropping acorns on us.”

“I disliked that,” said Irene.

“Irene wanted to climb that tree herself! Of course we girls weren’t allowed. I suppose you could climb a tree now if you wanted, you minx.”

“I might just do that. And if there are any acorns, I assure you, I shall save the largest for you.”

“Then I shall carry an umbrella. Mordecai never climbed trees, of course, he was always so thoughtful and quiet. He would sit reading at the windowsill all day if we’d let him.” She looked up off to the corner of the ceiling and a smile played along her mouth. “I was taller than he then, but not now of course, he’s just the right height, I think. As children I would insist that we were to be married, and of course none of us knew what that meant, and he took it all gravely and seriously and sometimes we would quarrel about it and other times not at all.”

Doña Calvo y López chuckled. “I was the same way! Ah, if only we knew.”

“When we were older we were the best of friends. Some people thought that odd, but why? Can’t a man and a woman be friends in the same way as two men or two women? We would talk for hours, play cards, go on outings. Then we were separated…he went to the university, I to a girls’ college. The Christmas before last he gave me a pair of pearl earrings and asked me to marry him. He was so serious, but so handsome…and I thought, who better to marry than your best friend? Don’t you think so?”

The older woman looked at the mantel, to the portrait of the late Don Calvo y López, a stout man with Brilliantined hair and teeth like a graveyard after an earthquake. She smiled serenely. “We were locked inside as girls, we did not know the young men. It was a dangerous time, not like now. I was told who I was to marry, that was the way.” She lifted her eyebrows and shrugged. “I had seen more beautiful men, but he was from a good family. His mother was French, but that is not so very bad, and his father’s father was from Catalan, like mine. I hated him sometimes, so stubborn! Asno! I would yell at him, and I would kick his shoes that he would leave all over my house. Ay, that made him angry, but I was angry too! But he was a good man, and a good father to the children, and I loved him very much.” She reached out and put her hand on Miss Pulver’s, squeezing. “I do not know if it will be easy for you because he is your friend, but if you love him, then marry him.”

“Thank you,” said Miss Pulver. “Was that your husband’s name, Asno?”

Had the old woman enough blood left in her I believe she would have blushed. “Ah, no, my dear, it means, ah, you know, the animal, what do you call it?” she looked at me.

“Donkey,” I said.

“Oh dear,” said Miss Pulver.

Olvídeselo, señorita.” She patted her hands and sat back. “Now mister sailor Lamb, tell us, how many girlfriends do you have in the ports? No lying, please, this is a Christian household. And if you’ve forgotten their names we shall toss you in the street, because that is not a romantic way to be.”

Mister Lamb was in the so-called hot seat and he looked it. “I don’t wish to disappoint you all, but I’m afraid I don’t have even one girlfriend. I suppose I’ve been at sea too long to have made many friends.”

“Shall we say that the sea is your mistress?” asked Miss Karas. “I believe that is customary in these situations.”

“Ah, Mister Lamb, that is no good. You do not want to be an old unmarried bachelor like Mister Says-ton. No one to take care of you, to make you feel happy when you come home from your voyage.” She gave me a mischievous look, and then glanced at Miss Karas, who glared at her tea.

I thought it might be expedient to change the subject. “You say you are an acquaintance of Mister Seagrave’s, Mister Lamb?”

“I was just telling the ladies that I was on that same submarine expedition,” said the young man.

“You? Great God!” This outburst escaped me quite by accident. And then I suddenly recalled that the Captain had mentioned a seaman Lamb in his story.

“Yes, it’s true. I saw Mr. Seagrave brought in, saw his state of mind when we transported him back to the surface,” said Lamb.

“I heard a rumor, a rumor of an undersea cave, and an air pocket therein. Is that really true?”

Mr. Lamb took a deep breath. “It is true, sir.”

“Fantastic! And…no one knows what happened to the other three men?”

Mr. Lamb shook his head. “The four of them left in a dinghy along with the captain and another member of our crew, the rest of us stayed behind. After some hours our shipmate returned, telling us that the four university men had gone off down a…well, a road, or so he said. Another one of our mates went back to keep company with the captain. Four hours later only three men returned, and the captain told us to get underway. Full speed ahead.”

“Fantastic,” I said again.

Miss Karas was watching the young man closely through narrowed eyes. “And what of this captain and the other crew member, the second one. Do you know them well?”

“I do, perhaps better than most,” said Lamb, straightening himself in his chair. “I sailed with them both, here in the Caribbean, in that very submarine, in fact. Carson and I both left the Navy after the war, after our tour of duty, as did Captain Adamski.”

“Well, do you think either of them capable of—and I’m sorry to ask this—murder? For money? Or in a moment of drunkenness, from spirits or from some kind of, I don’t know, toxic volcanic gas?”

Mr. Lamb looked somewhat offended, but his answer was measured and polite. “I would say that they are both good men. In fact I looked on the captain as a…as a kind of second father, I guess you might say. He looked after me, encouraged me, kept me out of harm’s way. You say that perhaps they killed them for money, but if there was anything of value taken from that cave, it must have been something exceedingly small, for I did not see it brought onto the vessel, and the captain did not seem inclined to ever return to that place. Beyond that, I know that the captain would have wanted the expedition to be a success, for certainly his name would have been made as well as those of the university men. That could be more valuable than any one diamond or nugget of gold. If you suggest rather that the men ran amok from drunkenness, well…Captain Adamski is no teetotaler, but he did not tolerate any alcohol on board his vessel when we were in the Navy; certainly I didn’t see any drinking that day, and both men were stone cold sober when they returned, of that I am certain.” He rubbed his chin for a moment. “Toxic gases, however…I must confess that that is a possibility that had occurred to me as well. Initially I wouldn’t have thought so, because I myself stayed up on the deck for many hours out in that air and felt quite all right, and at first nothing seemed wrong with any of our crew who had accompanied them. However, Captain Adamski has begun to act…strangely.”

A chill crossed over my skin as I remembered the captain’s behavior the day before, after he had told his tale. He’s getting bad again, they had said. “Strangely how?” I asked.

The young man sat forward in his chair and began talking in a hushed voice, as though there were others who might overhear. “I don’t know quite how to describe it. I visit him at the tavern where he now spends all his time, and mostly he is himself, though somewhat more touchy now, perhaps. He seems to be afraid of something, however, or it’s as if there is some idea that is haunting him, some thought that he can’t send away and which horrifies him. Sometimes he becomes erratic, one moment talking of fleeing Cuba, the next swearing that he’ll never leave. Sometimes when I see him, he embraces me as though I were his brother, as though he were a drowning man and I the lifeline, nearly breaking into tears, but then…the other times, the bad times, he looks at me as though he had never seen me before, shrinking away from me as if I were a ghost. When I press him as to what the trouble is, if he is feeling unwell in his body, or if there is some circumstance that is pressing on him, a debt or an enemy or some such thing, he becomes fearful and waves the question off. At the worst moments he flinches away from phantoms, something unseen, something that he is hearing or thinking.”

“And you believe that there could be some connection with Mr. Seagrave’s ailment?” I asked. “You think perhaps something in the air poisoned them both?”

“I don’t know…I’m only trying to understand it all myself.”

“There could be any number of reasons why your captain is experiencing emotional distress,” opined Miss Karas. “Too much time spent in submarines? The horrors of war? Perhaps some feeling of, I don’t know, guilt?”

“Ah, but I tell you there was nothing wrong with the man before that expedition. I admired him! He was a good man! What would he have to be guilty about?”

“That is my question, sir. For example…”

I interrupted Miss Karas before she said anything to further agitate the young man. “Excuse me, but did he say whether anything had happened to him while he was on that shore? Something that had frightened him, or…?”

Lamb considered the question. “At first he was quite talkative about what he had experienced,” he said, and then he told us a concise version of what the captain had related to me last night—of the road between the monuments, the four men walking down it, the lantern light disappearing, never to be seen again. “Returning to Cuba he told us much about the great stone pillars, and the dark, and the quiet. Later, in the tavern, he told me about the fear that he had felt, though he knew not the cause. Now he says nothing.” Mr. Lamb stared at his hands for a moment, then spoke again. “Until last night…and what he said and how he was then frightened me. I saw him very late, at the cantina; he was sitting in the dark, with his back to the corner; his shirt was unbuttoned, and his cuffs looked muddy. He recognized me, let me sit down with him, but when I tried to talk to him he would not answer, and only glanced around as if I were not there at all. Suddenly he began speaking of the university men, and asking me what they had found, as if I would have known. He was extremely distressed about this point, and then…he made a cry and clamped his hands over his ears. The other people at the cantina started to become alarmed. He grabbed my hand and stared into my eyes; he asked me to save him, as if he were in peril. He held me so tight he hurt me.” Mister Lamb held out his hand and showed us lacerations on the ball of this thumb, perhaps from fingernails. “Then, suddenly, he just stood up. His face was blank, now completely calm, but as if distant. He started walking away, then stopped. He looked down at me, and drew a pistol out of his jacket pocket. The women began screaming, the men were yelling…but he simply stood there, looking at me, holding it in the air, as if considering some question. Then he put it back in his pocket and walked out. The barman held me back, insisting that I should pay the captain’s tab. When I finally broke free and ran outside Adamski had disappeared.”

Dios mío! said our landlady.

“I have not seen him since,” said Lamb. “I had the hotel open his room this morning, afraid that he may have done some harm to himself in the night, but he was not there. His belongings are all in place, but as of a few hours ago he had still not returned.”

Miss Karas wore a look of deep dubiousness, but Miss Pulver’s face showed honest concern. “How terrible, Mister Lamb. I do hope he’s all right. Is there anything that we can do?”

Lamb blushed slightly. “I don’t think so, Miss Pulver. However, as I said, it had occurred to me that perhaps the captain and your friend Mister Seagrave are suffering from the same ailment somehow, and so I wanted to ask if you had learned anything from the doctors regarding your friend’s condition. That was actually the reason for my call here today…I hope I haven’t upset you and Miss Karas in coming here. Certainly I’m concerned for Mr. Seagrave as well, and…and…well, if there is anything I can do to help, then, by gosh, I would surely do it.”

He and Miss Pulver sat for one moment staring into the other’s eyes, each with their own separate look of hope and concern. It was Miss Karas who broke the silence. “I’m not upset in the slightest,” she said lightly, examining the back of her glove. Then she regarded Lamb from scalp to shoes and back again with two speedy flicks of her dark eyes. If she approved or disapproved of the young man, her face did not show it.

Miss Pulver sighed and smiled. “Thank you, mister Lamb, it means a lot to me to have your friendship in this matter, and certainly I hope that we can help each other. You’ll be happy to know that Mr. Seagrave is doing better today. When we went to call he was out of bed, and he even spoke a little, though…”—she paused a moment, groping for words—”…he seems still not quite himself yet. Not very…talkative.” She gave another faint smile.

“Did he speak at all of the expedition?” asked Mister Lamb.

“I’m afraid he did not, though I would have sworn that there was a moment of recognition when I asked him about it. However, he simply didn’t answer. He just…retreated, into a shell, like a, what do you call them?”

“A mollusk?” offered Lamb.

“A what?” asked Miss Pulver. “I was going to say a tortoise. Do you mean like a clam?”

“How very charming,” offered Miss Karas. “Clams are always inside their shells, though, no? Perhaps he merely meant a limpet.”

Mister Lamb shifted in his seat and stammered. “Ah, well there are all different types of mollusk, of course, some of which are very interesting creatures, really.” I had to chuckle to myself, for I think the lad hardly knew what he was saying in his nervousness, and yet he prattled on. “Why, there is a thing called a nautilus which has a shell that is quite beautiful, like a multicolored spiral with tiger stripes. Quite good swimmers too, or so I hear. If you break the shell open, the inside is a maze of little rooms, each smaller than the other, curving away into infinity.”

“I can understand how you would feel a connection to those creatures, Mr. Lamb,” I put in. “Mr. Verne named his fictional submarine after them, no?”

“He did indeed!” He seemed about to say more on the subject and then stopped and thought for a bit. “Strange creatures, though. I saw a dead one preserved in a jar once. Its face is all little wriggly tentacles, like a cuttlefish, but many more than eight. Even fifty, perhaps. I found myself wondering if it knew each one, in the way we can move every finger one by one, if it had a name for them all, or if they all moved together with a thought, like when you pick something up without thinking.” He looked at his fingers and waggled them. “Strange eyes. Just a hole, really. Must seem rather monstrous to whatever makes up its diet, I’ll say!”

Miss Pulver listened politely, brows raised and eyelids blinking expressively, in that way that women do when a man has been talking too long about hunting or automobiles. A mischievous smile twitched one corner of her lips. “Well, I am relieved to hear that you found my dear friend Mister Seagrave not at all like a clam and only like a monster cuttlefish. Thank you for setting my mind at ease on that point.”

Percival Lamb looked as though he had been shot through the heart with some large-caliber bullet, or perhaps a cannonball. I tried to hold back my laughter, but the young women burst into merriment and I tumbled along with it. Thankfully, Mr. Lamb laughed as well, blushing and looking sheepish. I decided that he was a good sort after all, and quite likable.

“I’m only joking, Mister Lamb, please forgive me. You seem to be quite the naturalist.”

“I’ve never called myself such, but I do find the natural world fascinating. Don’t you, Mr. Sexton?”

“I do indeed,” I said. “Speaking of which, let me ask you something: you say that you went topside when the submarine surfaced in the cave. As a naturalist, what were your impressions of the place?”

He seemed to consider the question seriously, and then he spoke. “It’s interesting that you put the question in precisely that way, sir, because truth to tell there was something unnatural about the place; what I mean to say is that it was all too accommodating. I don’t know what else you’ve read about our adventures, but perhaps you know that there were markers, you might say guideposts, outside the cave, and then again at the far end, and then a third pair up on what you might call the shore, within the air pocket. These were man-made, that much was clear even from the distance I was at, and of a very large size, so some certain amount of coördination and engineering must have been involved. The cave itself had a rough surface, but if one took a broad view of it it was actually quite regular, with no obstructions. Once inside, you could have hardly asked for a better harbor. To be sure, it was a bit tight for a boat as long and difficult to maneuver as ours, but we had no serious trouble. On top of that, the captain and two of my mates agree that there was a road there on the shore. So, in short, there was nothing natural about the place at all; perhaps once upon a time it was some kind of habitation or meeting place. Perhaps in aeons past it was at sea level, and then a cataclysm sunk it, or else it was drowned in the biblical deluge.”

“Why, Submariner Lamb,” said Miss Pulver, “I believe you have some hint of the poet about you. You have inspired me to compose a verse. Attendez vous.” She closed her eyes, thought for a moment, and then declaimed:

 

In aeons past

The sea did rise

It drowned their cave

And claimed their lives.

 

Submariner Lamb was tapping a finger on his lips. “Yes, very nice! Here’s another:”

 

Their hallowed ground

Submerged it waits

For us to pass

Its stony gates.

 

“Edgar Allan Poe would be jealous,” I said, “but tell me, gentle bards, who is ‘they’?”

“Ah,” said Lamb. “That is a good question.”

Helen sighed. “I think that’s what Mordecai wanted to find out.”

“Don’t worry, Miss Pulver,” I said. “He may tell us yet.”

Miss Karas sniffed dubiously. “I wonder if he knew us at all. Mordecai looked at me like he had never seen me before.”

“Irene!” Miss Pulver suddenly exploded from cheerfulness into anger, her face as red as a washed beet, her lips compressed together in a fierce line. She glared at her friend through a wave of stiff blonde hair, her little hands two balls in her lap. Mr. Lamb was visibly alarmed and our hostess was looking back and forth between us all with goggle eyes. For myself, I’m ashamed to say, I could only think: by God, she’s even more pretty when she’s angry. Ha! Damn my foolishness. But to be sure she was.

For once the stoic Miss Karas looked flustered. She spoke quickly and quietly. “I’m sorry, Helen. I’m very sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I only meant….”

To our surprise, Helen Pulver slapped her. Her engagement ring flashed in the lamplight.

Irene Karas sat for a moment in shock, a hand poised beneath reddening cheek. Then she stood up. “You needn’t have done that, Helen,” she said in a trembling voice, then walked stiffly out of the room and stomped up the stairs.

Miss Pulver buried her face in her hands and a moment later was sobbing. The three of us reflexively rose from our seats, but Ayana appeared from nowhere, put her arm around the girl, and started saying reassuring nonsense in Spanish. Doña Calvo y López spoke to me in Spanish as well, sotto voce: these girls are very high-strung, no? Then she prattled a bit about young people and their strange manners.

“Well, now I really have made a mess of things,” the young man said to me forlornly.

“Not your fault, Mister Lamb, I’m sure,” I said. “Miss Pulver, it sometimes takes time for the mind to recover from a shock or a traumatic event. If your fiancé is in a…well, confused state, it may be only temporary. It may well be that it is partly due to the fact that he is in a foreign place. Perhaps if he returns home to familiar friends and surroundings, then his personality will be restored to him.”

Miss Pulver was wiping her eyes and cheeks with a handkerchief and taking long, slow breaths to relieve the hitching in her breast. Black mascara had been rubbed onto her eyelids like kohl, giving her face a mysterious look. “Please forgive me. Of course you’re right, Mister Sexton, and to be sure I am very much looking forward to bringing him back to the States—as soon as his health allows, of course. I was very much reassured seeing him today, though, as Irene suggested, he seems still to be rather distant.”

The young woman appeared to have calmed down, and there was a pause in the conversation. Something was nagging at my mind, however, so I put a question to Submariner Lamb. “I wonder, sir, did you have any other impressions about the underwater cavern?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“I’m not sure what I mean myself. I suppose what I’m asking is, did it seem in any way, I don’t know, dreadful or unsettling?”

The young man thought. “It was very quiet, and to be sure that was unsettling, as you say. I would not even say that it was like a tomb, for even within a tomb there can be tokens of remembrance, and in any case a tomb is still something familiar and human. No…it was like….” His eyes drifted away for a moment, and then returned. “It was like being on some other world, some world not our own…stranded, with nothing familiar and no way home. Or perhaps like a land of ghosts. Or perhaps it was like being dead, with the curtain rung down between us and everything that we love; I can tell you that I almost cried when I saw the sun again. There was indeed something terrible about that…emptiness.”

“What of your fellow crew? Did they feel the same way?”

“No one spoke of it, but I would bet all the money I have that they felt the same to a man. In fact, once the novelty of the situation had run its course, most of the men stayed inside the submarine, and preferred to pace around that enclosed space rather than stand on deck in the dark.”

“How about the fellows who went on shore with the Captain?”

“There was not much time to speak to Carson when they returned, beyond to find out how he and the Captain had discovered Seagrave, and we did not have any opportunity to talk once we quit the sub. Kine was also tight-lipped; he did not speak of anything odd or unusual…except….”

“Except what?” asked Miss Pulver.

“Except that when he returned in the dinghy he announced that he would not go back, and he had a look in his eyes that said that if any of us were to insist otherwise, there would be trouble.”

“Do you think that the strangeness of the situation might have affected their minds, Mister Sexton? That perhaps something like isolation or claustrophobia drove them mad, and that is why the other three men disappeared?”

Indeed the thought had crossed my mind. “It’s hard to say, Miss Pulver, but at the very least it seems to be a possibility. I hear that isolation can have strange effects on the mind. I have also heard of cases in which people who survived the ordeal of accidental burial were driven mad with fear.”

“Mister Says-ton! Please!” protested our host.

“Ah yes,” said Submariner Lamb. “Mister Edgar Allan Poe wrote a very interesting story on the subject. Have you read it? No? Ah, but you must. And then of course there is his ‘Fall of the House of Usher,’ and those, heh heh, ‘low and indefinite sounds.'” He shivered gleefully, like a boy in a spook-house.

“You seem to be quite the expert on strange literature, Submariner Lamb,” said Miss Pulver.

“Pardon? Oh, no, not at all, not at all. Though,” he leaned over to me and said, in a half whisper, “I have just read a very interesting novel by a certain Arthur Machen entitled The Terror….”

Doña Calvo y López shrieked and covered her face with her hands. “Ay, Mister Lamb! No more terrors and gravings, if you please! Did we not have enough horror in the newspapers during the war? All those strong young men exploded into pieces! Ah, if you like terror, you should have grown up with me, here in Cuba! Always there was fighting! We saw many men and women buried, and none of them, I think, by accident. But I can see nothing changes.” She turned to Miss Pulver. “These men, they are impossible to live with. Will you help me throw them out? If we do it together, I think we can put them in the street, just let us do it one at a time, I am an old woman.” Miss Pulver, for her part, was shaking with laughter, and Lamb and I did our best to keep straight faces and feign contrition.

“I can see that I am becoming a bad influence on this company,” said Submariner Lamb, and he stood up from his seat. “I do hope, however, that you’ll let me call again, so that I might inquire as to the health of your friend, Miss Pulver.”

“But of course, Mister Lamb.” Miss Pulver stood and shook his hand seriously, and then brushed away a lock of blonde hair that had fallen across a cheek.

“I suppose I should retire as well,” I said. “Buenas noches, Doña Calvo y López. I am very happy to have better made your acquaintance, Miss Pulver, and if there is anything at all I can do for you, please be sure to ask. It would be no trouble at all, I assure you.” She bade me a good night, ringing out the simple phrase of politeness with her own charm, that mixture of sweetness and sadness that I was coming to know and like so very much. Ah, if only…!

One last encounter before bed, of course; I could see two white shoes on the stairs beneath the landing above mine, and looking up I saw a glum Miss Karas sitting, arms crossed on knees, cheek on her wrist.

“Hello, Miss Karas. I’m so sorry you had a quarrel with your friend.”

“Give it no thought, Mister Sexton, we often quarrel. It’s nothing, I assure you. Perhaps I deserved it.”

“Ah, well, I don’t….”

“No, perhaps I did. My frankness gets me in trouble sometimes, but I am a person who likes to tell the truth. I cannot help it, it wants to come out, even when it would be better to be silent and let people believe what they will. Do you understand, Mister Sexton?”

“I think I do.”

“I’m not a mean person, and I care for Helen very much. But sometimes I feel compelled to say the way things are.”

“I understand.”

She reached out and touched my shoulder, leaning down towards me now. Her face was was quite near mine, and I could feel her breath on my ear. “And this is the truth, now: something is wrong with Mordecai. I’m telling you there is something wrong.”

I could feel my face blushing, partly because the odd young woman was so close to me, her blouse open at the breast, her skin moving with her heartbeat, but also because I knew she was right but could not say it.

“I think….” Her eyes moved across some invisible plane, looking inside herself. “I think I am afraid.”

I squeezed her hand. “Thank you for telling the truth. You could be right…let’s be careful. Let us all be careful.”

She nodded and returned to her vigil on the stairs. I entered my room, struck a match to light the lamp, and immediately had to stifle a scream. Ayana had left the painting on a chair facing the door; the beast was leering at me from out of the hole. I took it down and turned it to the wall. Pfft! Stupid girl!

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